(TNS) — Maine’s top law enforcement officials attempted Thursday to demystify the workings of a secretive state police intelligence unit that has come under intense scrutiny following a whistleblower lawsuit alleging illegal spying on citizens and a data breach that exposed thousands of the agency’s confidential intelligence reports.

In a conference room in a low-slung government building in Augusta, managers of the Maine Information and Analysis Center presented an overview of the agency’s duties, took extensive questions from the media and showed two examples of cases where the center provided assistance. The presentation was led by the agency’s managers, Lt. Michael Johnston, Maj. Christopher Grotton and Sgt. Matthew Casavant. Their bosses, state police Col. John Cote and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck, were in the audience, with Sauschuck occasionally answering questions.

The media push comes after lawmakers and advocates around the state have called for the center to be defunded or abolished completely. Shifting societal attitudes about policing and surveillance are tied to the demands of the growing Black Lives Matter movement, which is calling for a wholesale rethinking of policing in a modern society.

In May, a state police trooper filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the agency, alleging it has illegally collected information about innocent citizens, including political activists and gun owners, allegations the state has rebuffed.

The criticism generated concern inside the state police that the public did not properly understand what the intelligence center does, Johnston said, leading to Thursday’s media day, when reporters were permitted to tour the windowless room of cubicles and offices where personnel at the so-called fusion center do their work.

“I think one of the ways we help try to deal with that (concern) is be responsive and communicative and try to answer questions,” Johnston said. “The form and shape that takes are things like today. You try to shine a light on things. All we can do is try to answer questions and tell people what we do and how we do it. So I think it … will be interesting, as a result of our efforts on things like today, to see what the outcome is.”

While Maine’s center and many others like it around the country were created to correct the intelligence-sharing failures that led in part to the attacks of Sept. 11, they have morphed into omnibus crime-fighting resources for local police departments. In June, a tranche of nearly 5 gigabytes of information from the Maine Information and Analysis Center spilled into public view following a hack of a vendor that provided web-hosting services for the agency, showing it collected information on racial-justice protesters and other people exercising their First Amendment rights.

Lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills are facing a gargantuan budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic, estimated to be $1.4 billion over the next three years, giving new urgency to the calls from advocates to defund some police services in favor of other state priorities.

In his presentation and in follow-up questions, Johnston returned to the theme that officers and analysts at the center follow a strict rubric to evaluate whether the information they’ve received or whether the assistance they are asked to provide are inside the boundaries of the law, and meet the strict legal standard of sufficient probable cause that a crime had been committed.

The agency has no operational wing, meaning its members do not participate in on-the-ground police actions, and does not engage in any activity that requires judicial approval, such as serving or executing search warrants or pursuing subpoenas. The center also does not hold files on individual people; its database is incident-based, so it’s difficult to ascertain how many people are listed in its files.

Their role is to support other agencies, Johnston said, by routing crime tips, running specialized information searches in government and for-profit databases, and by gathering open-source information that would be available to any person with social media accounts and an internet connection. Recently, that has included collecting information on demonstrations around the state in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, along with other groups exercising their First Amendment rights.

But Johnston and others could not provide clear answers as to how the fusion center, which was created by gubernatorial order in 2006 and costs roughly $800,000 annually, including about $100,000 in federal grants, objectively measures its successes or determines its value to the state.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, a persistent critic of the Maine Information and Analysis Center who attended the first hour of the tour, pressed Johnston to drill down: What service does the center provide that other agencies don’t already do?

Johnston, in his response, deferred to other agencies.

“I think that question is better asked of the people we partner with and we try to serve on a daily basis, the law enforcement agencies that utilize us, the public and private sector entities that we partner with, and say, ‘If the MIAC went away tomorrow, what kind of hole will it create?'” Johnston said. “‘Will you be able to fill it from a statewide perspective? Do you have the resources? Do you have the capacity? Do you have those established infrastructure and relationships with those entities?'”

Most police agencies in Maine are made up of 10 people or less, Johnston said, and struggle to fill overnight shifts with part-time officers, let alone bring to bear the capabilities and expertise of the fusion center on their own cases.

“From a statewide perspective and the established relationships we have with our federal partners, I don’t think there’s anyone who can do what we can do,” Johnston said.

Johnston said they administer a survey to their partner agencies, but he did not have details about what the results show. Johnston also said the agency previously had the capability to track how many bulletins are opened by their recipients, but that data was not close at hand, either.

After the meeting, Warren said she was unimpressed by Johnston’s response, and that after so many meetings and briefings trying to understand the agency’s role and function, she still can’t figure out why they are necessary.

“It feels like I’m trying to grab smoke,” she said.

By way of example of some of the work the agency performs, Johnston showed four videos depicting a man named Jeremy Rogers that were sent over Facebook to another person. In the first three, Rogers is visible handling and shooting various firearms – ostensibly legal activities. But in the final video, Rogers, clad in a ski mask, loads and arms a rifle, and declares, “I’m tired of this (expletive), I’m going to (expletive) Walmart.”

The threat came less than three weeks after an armed man entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and opened fire, killing 23 people and wounding 23 more.

Johnston said the center pushed out a bulletin for officers to be aware of Rogers and the threats he made Aug. 22, 2019, using it as an example of the assistance the agency provides and saying the center played a small role in the case.

But federal court records paint a more detailed picture. The case against Rogers actually began the day before, on Aug. 21, in New York state. The person who received Rogers’ threatening video on Facebook immediately reported Rogers. That person also told police that Rogers recently moved to Rockland, Maine, according to a complaint filed by Jonathan Rich, an FBI agent and member of a local anti-terrorism task force in New England. Rogers was prohibited from possessing firearms because of a previous felony conviction, the complaint said, making his firearm possession a federal crime.

The New York State Police then immediately called Rockland police and alerted them to the potential threat, and that night, Rockland police closed the local Walmart, the complaint reads.

The bulletin that the Maine Information and Analysis Center sent to law enforcement was last modified about 12:30 a.m. Aug. 22, according to a copy of the PDF file that was released as part of the massive data hack. By 3 p.m. that day, Rogers was in custody, according to the federal complaint.

The second case example Johnston provided depicted other Facebook activity, but in this instance, the man’s face and identifying details were redacted because the case is ongoing. The Facebook posts show the man expressing a desire to have sex with his daughter. He then posted photos of two girls, sitting side by side.

Johnston said the report of the concerning behavior led the center to reach out to law enforcement partners. Another agency was already working on the case, he said, and the man turned out to be a convicted sex offender.

©2020 the Portland Press Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.